Chesapeake Bay Field Office
Northeast Region

Schoolyard Habitat:  Habitat Features

The following is a list of habitat features that increase habitat diversity and attract more wildlife. Also included are amenities that can help make outdoor learning areas more interesting or useable. An ideal time to incorporate these features is during the planning process for new school construction or renovation projects. Most of these can also be added to an existing site.

Habitat Features

Logs - Rotting logs are habitat for many insects, salamanders and small mammals. Logs can be used to learn about the process of decay and the life associated with it. Logs can be placed in any of the habitat types or anywhere else on the playground. Partially submerged logs in wetlands or ponds provide a place for turtles and frogs to sun.

Snags - Standing dead trees or snags provide nest sites for cavity nesting birds including woodpeckers, chickadees and many more. Many insect live in snags which attract a variety of birds. Predatory birds perch on snags for a better view of prey.
Brushpiles. Brushpiles provide excellent cover for rabbits, chipmunks, skunks, small birds, and insects. Place brushpiles in woodlands and along wooded edges. Discarded Christmas trees can be used as a brushpile.

Water - If there is not room for a wetland or pond, consider a way to provide water for wildlife. A half barrel or a cement mixing trough filled with water works well. If the soil has enough clay, simply dig a few shallow holes and let the rain fill them. Dripping water into a puddle is irresistible to birds. Check with a local library or nursery for directions on building a small lined pond.

Nesting Boxes - Nesting boxes are a good habitat amendment for cavity nesting birds. Bat boxes and squirrel boxes can also be built. A Bluebird Trail can be built by placing several nesting boxes at least 100 yards apart, preferably along a forest edge or in a meadow. Boxes need to be placed on posts with predator guards. Boxes should be monitored and cleaned after each brood. Many birds may use bluebird boxes for nesting. All birds, except house sparrows and starlings, are protected by law.

Feeders. Place bird feeders near protective shrubs and trees to attract more birds. A bird feeder project should have some long term benefit for the students and not be a onetime project.

Other Features
Signs - Identify projects with signs to help with community recognition. Signs will help publicize the project and can help offset complaints about the wild appearance of natural habitats.

Trails - Trails should be an integral part of any project. Make sure wheel chair access is incorporated into trail design. A nature trail could eventually wind throughout the entire schoolyard. Regularly mowed grass trails are easily maintained in sunny areas. Design the trails to be at least as wide as the mower. A 6-foot width works well. Wood chips are a good ground cover for wooded trails. Many tree maintenance companies will provide free wood chips.

Wildlife Observation Blind - A simple three-sided structure with slats cut out at eye level will allow students to view wildlife on the other side. It should be placed in front of bird feeders, wetlands, in meadows or along thickets for closer observation of secretive wildlife. See diagram for basic design

Outdoor Seating - An area or several areas where class can be held outside or a child/ group can go to compete a task or read/write in privacy. Picnic tables can be used for lunchtime and as work stations. Place in an area that is easy to access from school. Hillsides are a good place for a small amphitheater. See reference: Thinking About Seating in Your School Grounds.

Wildlife Tracking Box - A wooden box filled with mud or modeling clay and placed near water or a feeding area makes a good tracking box. Visiting animals will leave tracks which students can identify, make plaster castings of, write stories about, etc.

Composting - Large or small scale composting can be used to teach many lessons. Your local Cooperative Extension Service office or County Public Works office can provide information on different composting structures.

BayScaping (Native Plant Landscaping) - The typical foundation landscapes around schools consist of ornamental non-native plants. Native plants can be added to enhance the existing landscape or native plants can be used to replace the existing landscape. A native plant landscape provides learning opportunities for children and adults. Native plants give people a sense of place within their local environment. Native plants attract native wildlife and help add to the biodiversity of schoolyards. Contact a landscape architect with experience in native landscape design. In the Chesapeake Bay region, native plant landscaping is called “BayScaping”.

Gardens - A wide range of gardens are possible. Planned garden areas should be included in the school design. Considerations for gardens include:

• Make close to building (courtyards work well)
• Full sun is important
• A nearby faucet is essential
• Topsoil or loam soil should be placed in garden area (Store topsoil if raised beds will be built at later time)
• Raised beds work very well to define area which helps maintenance staff
• Gardens should be accessible to children at all times

Some types of gardens include:

• A Native Plant Garden or Arboretum
• A Butterfly/Insect Garden. Plants selected for their nectar and caterpillar food. Be sure to include several species that bloom when children are in school.
• Vegetable Garden. Use primarily early and late season vegetables so students can enjoy the harvest.
• Herb Garden.
• Sensory Garden. Plants selected for their aromatic, textural, visual or edible qualities.
• Berry Patch. A patch of harvestable berries such as blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and huckleberries.

Art - There are many types of murals, blacktop diagrams, sculptures and other art related projects that can be done to enhance the outdoor learning environment.
Playgrounds: Many good references are available for playground design. Check the resource section for a list.

Hills - One, or a group of small hills can be constructed with excess soil. This seemingly strange feature can add to the diversity and enjoyment of playgrounds. An open or enclosed lookout tower can be built on top of a hill.

Shade - Plant shade trees throughout the site especially near the playground. Arbors can be built to create shade. An open air cabana can provide shade.

Weather Station - A weather station is an excellent compliment to any outdoor learning area.

Geology Study Area - Develop an area on the playground where samples of local rocks are kept to learn about local geology. The samples should be large so that they are not removed.

Photo of pond edge

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Last updated: January 28, 2011